I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.
Years ago, on one particular Good Friday, I took a large cross, lifted it onto my shoulder, and I walked around town for a few hours. It has been a habit of mine ever since I entered the ministry and it is part of my desire to bring the Lord to the people outside the church. I want people to see the sign that we see every Sunday morning in order to be reminded about what we did, and what the Lord has done for us.
Anyway, on that Good Friday I set out for my cross carrying venture and I received a variety of reactions. Some people honked their horns as they drove past. There was a man who offered me water because it was a particularly hot spring day. I even had someone spit at my feet. But mostly, people just stared at the strange sight of a man in all black carrying a cross around town.
I had almost finished my loop when I spotted a woman on the other side of the road with a perplexed look on her face. She was glaring at the cross and then she inexplicably crossed the street and demanded to know what in the world I was doing.
I calmly explained that I was carrying the cross because that’s exactly what Jesus did on Good Friday before he was crucified. And then she said something I, sadly, was completely unprepared to hear: “Who in the world is Jesus?”
I know that I, for one, take for granted the ubiquity of Christianity. That is, I assume that even people who never step foot in a church have, at least, some semblance of an idea about Jesus. But there, on that Good Friday, I encountered someone who knew nothing of the Lord.
Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Even on the other side of his Damascus experience, his desire to know the Lord was at the forefront of the apostle’s heart and mind. Even for as much as I know the Lord, from encountering God in the strange new world of the Bible, in the sacraments, in the still small silences, I too desire to know the Lord and the power of Christ’s resurrection. At the heart of the church’s gathering is a willingness to proclaim the wonders of God so that all of us come to know who Christ is and who we are in relation to Christ.
But what about those outside the church?
Or, to put it another way, how would you respond to someone who said, “Who in the world is Jesus?”
Faith is an exciting adventure not because it provides all the answers to our questions, but because it encourages us to ask questions in the first place. Here, at the tail end of Lent, with the cross hovering on the horizon, we are compelled to confront the incarnate truth. That truth has a name: Jesus. Jesus cannot be explained from a pulpit or from a book. Jesus defies all of our expectations and often leaves us scratching our heads.
But that’s the point. God is God and we are not. The best we can do is tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection that we’ve been telling throughout the centuries. The rest is up to God.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent [C] (Isaiah 43.16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3.4b-14, John 12.1-8). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including record breakers, timelessness, keeping Easter in Lent, Makoto Fujimura, laughing in church, terrible testimonies, tremendous transformation, clarity (or the lack thereof), authorial soliloquies, and John Daker. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Narding Out
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons…”
The strange new world of the Bible is downright scandalous.
I mean, the first two human characters in it, Adam and Eve, spend most of their time in their birthdays suits before they decide to cover themselves with a handful of fig leaves.
The patriarch of the covenant, Abraham, passes off his wife as his sister on more than one occasion to save his own behind.
David, the handsome shepherd king who brings down the mighty Goliath, orders the death of one of his soldiers after an afternoon peeping session with the aforementioned solider’s wife.
And those are just the first three stories that popped in my mine.
When Jesus shows up on the scene, the scandalous nature of the Good News ramps up to eleven.
He eats with all the wrong people, he heals all the wrong people, and he makes promises to all the wrong people.
In the beginning, Jesus attracts all kids of people. The good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the holy and the sinful, the first and the last.
But at some point along the way things start to change as do the people who find themselves listening to Jesus.
All the tax collectors and all the sinners come near to listen. The tax collectors are those who profit off their fellow Jews by upping their take for the empire’s pockets. And the sinners, well you can just imagine your favorite sinful behavior, and you can picture them near the Lord.
And so it is the last, least, lost, little, and nearly dead who hang on his every word. Not the respectable Sunday morning crowd we have at church. Not those who sleep comfortably at night knowing their padded bank accounts are safe and secure. Not the people who have all the powers and principalities at their fingertips.
No. Jesus has all the gall to hang out with the sinners.
And the Pharisees, the good religious observers (people like us), are concerned about the behavior of this would-be Messiah, and so they try to dissuade the crowds: “This Jesus is nothing but bad news! He welcomes sinners into his midst, and not only that, he eats with them! Can you imagine? And he calls himself the Son of God!”
So Jesus does what Jesus does best, he tells them a story.
There’s a man with two sons. The family business has been good to the family. The little corner grocery store is a staple in the community and the family know the names of just about every person that walks through the door.
And the father is a good father. He loves his sons.
But one day the younger son gets it into his head that he wants his inheritance right then and there. He doesn’t have the patience to wait for his old man to buy the farm so he marches into the back office and triumphantly declares, “Dad, I want my share of the inheritance now.”
In other words, “Drop dead.”
And the father really is a good father, so he decides to divide his assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes out some investments and gives him his half in cold hard cash.
Only a few days pass before the younger son blows all of his money in Atlantic City. At first he is careful, a few passes at the roulette wheel, a handful of bets at black jack. But the more he loses, the more he spends on booze, girls, and more gambling,
His fall from grace happens so fast that he walks up to the closest pit boss with empty pockets and begs for a job.
“Sure,” the man says, “we’ve got an opening in janitorial services and you can start right now.”
Days pass and the younger son cleans out the trashcans throughout the casino. He’s able to stave off the hunger at first, but he hasn’t eaten in days and one particular half-consumed doughnut at the bottom of the trash can starts to look remarkably appetizing.
And that’s when he comes to himself.
He realizes, there in that moment, that he made a tremendous mistake. Even the employees back at the family grocery store have food to eat and roofs over their heads.
He drops his janitorial supplies and beelines out of the casino while working on a speech in his head, “Dad, I really messed up. I am sorry and I am no longer worthy to be called you son. If you can give me a job at the store I promise I’ll make it up to you.”
He says the words over and over again in his head the whole way home, practicing the lines like his life depends on them.
Meanwhile, the father is sitting by the window at the front of the shop, lazily glancing over the newspaper’s depressing headlines. He can hear his elder son barking out orders to his former employees, and then he sees the silhouette of his younger son walking up the street.
He sprints out the front door, spilling his coffee and leaving a flying newspaper in his wake. He tackles his son to the ground, squeezes him like his life depends on it, and he keeps kissing him all over his matted hair.
“Dad,” the son says, “Dad, I’m sorry.”
“Shut up boy,” the father roars, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party the likes of which this neighborhood has never seen!”
He yanks his prodigal son up from the asphalt, drags him back up the block, and pushes him in front of everyone in store.
“Murph,” he yells at a man with a broom standing at the end of an aisle, “Lock the front door and go find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got. We’ll start roasting it on the grill out back.”
“Hey Janine!” He yells at a woman behind the cash register, “Get on the PA system and call everyone to the front, and open up some beers while you’re at it. It’s time to party! This son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and now is found!”
And the beer caps start flying, and the radio in the corner gets turned up to eleven, and everyone starts celebrating in the middle of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the inventory and comparing figures to make sure that none of his employees are swindling him out of his money, and he hears a commotion going on down the hallway. He sees Murph run past the door with what looks like beer foam in his mustache, and what looks like a leg of lamb under his arm, and the elder son shouts, “What in the world is going on?”
Murph skids to a stop in the hallway and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home! And your father told us to party!” And with that he disappears around the corner to get the grill going.
The older brother’s fists tighten and he retreats back to his office chair and to his ledger books.
Try as he might he can’t focus on his work. All he can think about is his good for nothing brother and all of the frivolity going on mere feet away. His anger grows so rapidly that he grabs the closest stack of papers and flings them across the room.
And then he hears a knock at the door.
His father steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles, “Hey, what’re you doing back here? You’re missing all the fun!”
The older son is incredulous. “What do you mean, ‘What am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job! I’ve never missed a day of work, I’ve been working like a slave for you and you never once threw me a party, you never told me I could go home early. And yet this prodigal son of yours has the nerve to come home, having wasted all your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”
The father sobers up quickly, and maybe it’s the beer or maybe it’s is own frustration, that causes him to raise his voice toward his eldest son, “You big dumb idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve only been working for yourself. Last time I checked, it’s your name on the back of the door, not mine.”
The elder son stands in shock.
And the father continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him the inheritance? Well I trusted you with this, the family business. And what does your life have to show for it? You’re so consumed by numbers and figures, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, all the while you’re chasing some bizarre fantasy of a life that doesn’t exist.”
“Don’t you, ‘But Dad’ me right now, I’m on a roll. Listen! All that matters, the only thing that matters, is that your brother is finally alive again. But look at you! You’re hardly alive at all. There’s a party going on just down the hall and you can’t even bring yourself to have a good time. Well, remember son of mine, complain all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”
The father makes to leave and rejoin the party, but he turns back one last time toward his elder son and says, “I think the only reason you’re not out there cutting up a rug with the rest of us is because you refuse to die to all your dumb rules about how your life is supposed to go. So, please, do yourself a favor, and drop dead. Forget about your life, and come have fun with us.”
And, of course, we know what we’re supposed to do with the story.
At times we’re supposed to identify with the younger brother, having ventured off toward a handful of mistakes, and we need to repent of our wrong doings.
At times we supposed to identify with the father, with our own wayward child, or friend, or partner, and how we have to pray for them to come to their senses and receive them in love.
At times we’re supposed to identify with the elder brother, when we’re disgusted with how some people get all the good stuff even though their rotten.
And just about every time we encounter this parable, whether in worship, Sunday school, or even a book or movie, the same point is made – find yourself in the story and act accordingly.
But that ruins the story. It ruins the story because it makes the entire thing about us when the entire thing is actually about Jesus.
If it were about us it would certainly have a better ending. We would find out from the Lord whether or not the elder brother decides to join the party, if the younger brother really kept to the straightened arrow, and if the father was able to get his sons to reconcile with one another.
But Jesus doesn’t give us the ending we want. We don’t get an ending because that’s not the point.
The point is rather scandalous – no one gets what they deserve and the people who don’t deserve anything get everything!
In Jesus’ parable we encounter the great scandal of the gospel: Jesus dies and is resurrected for us whether we deserve it or not. Like the younger son, we don’t even have to apologize before our heavenly Father is tackling us in the streets of life with love. Like the older son, we don’t have to do anything to earn an invitation to the party, save for ditching our self-righteousness.
Contrary to how we might often imagine it, the whole ministry of the Lord isn’t about the importance of our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God have a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.
That’s what grace is all about. It is the cosmic bash, the great celebration, that constantly hounds all the non-celebrants in the world. It begs the prodigals to come out and dance, and it begs the elder brothers to take their fingers out of their ears. The fatted calf is sacrificed so that the party can begin. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross so that we can let our hair down, take off our shoes, and start dancing.
We were lost and we’ve been found. Welcome home. Amen.
Jesus sees possibilities where we, too often, see failure.
Jesus believes in those who have quit believing in themselves.
Jesus makes a way where there is no way.
That’s exactly who Jesus is!
And, lest we ever forget, God is at least as nice as Jesus which also means that God is at least as zealous as Jesus. Because Jesus, as Paul reminds us, is the fullness of God revealed. God is not merely sitting idly by watching the world spin down the toilet – God is showing up in places, flipping the tables of complacency, and is probing us to wonder about the ways things are so that we might move to where things can be.
Taking at step back from Jesus’ temple tantrum, with the tables overturned and the money-lenders cowering in the corner, it’s not hard to imagine the headline in the next issue of the Jerusalem Times: Jesus – The Disturber of the Peace
There have always been disruptors of the peace, those zealots who shake up the status quo.
And yet, the peace disturbed by Jesus that day, and still disturbs today, was no real peace. The weak and the marginalized were getting abused and forced into economic hardships all while God’s blessing were being construed as something to be purchased or earned.
And then God in Christ shows up to remind us there is no real transformation without disruption. Faithful following is only every possible because of disruption and dislocation – otherwise we are doomed to remain exactly as we are.
And, for some of us, that doesn’t sound too bad. Some of us would do quite well if things remained exactly as they are. But God is in the business of making something from nothing, of taking us from here to over there, of deliverance.
Change, real change, good change, is never painless. It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries, an ever present reminder of what happens should any of us start asking all of the right questions.
We have a method for dealing with disturbers of the peace.
And yet, it only takes a quick glance at the great stories of history to be reminded that the most important shifts from one thing to another have always come because of disruption.
We can point to the real change makers of the world, those who refused to accept things as they were, but Jesus, whether we like it or not, is the most striking example of disruption, dislocation, and painful challenge to our status quo. Ever since he showed up we’ve never really be able to return to normal because God in Christ is marching on, all while bringing us along for the ride.
“Zeal for your house will consume me,” the psalmist writes and the disciples apply to Jesus. And they were right – The zeal Jesus had for a new day did consume him. So much so that we killed him for it.
But even the grave couldn’t stop our disturber of the peace.
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
I love and loathe wearing my clergy collar when I’m out and about in public. I love the way it forces me to act like a Christian and the ways in which the faith breaks out from the walls of the church. And I loathe the awkward encounters it produces and the times in which I am compelled to defend the church from her detractors.
More often than not I don’t give much thought to what day I wear the collar or where I will be.
And sometimes I wish I was smarter about it.
When the time came for my second COVID vaccination shot I drove over to an abandoned department store and waited in line with hundreds of other people from the community. And it was only after I received the shot and sat socially distanced from the aforementioned crowds did I realize that I was wearing the collar.
And what made me realize my attire was the line that started to develop right in front of me of individuals who mistook me for a Catholic priest and asked if I would hear their confession.
Paul writes to the church in Corinth: “We are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.” We, therefore, represent Christ and his church to those outside the church; we are strangers in a strange land.
And yet, with the privatization of faith, with faith often being something we do on Sundays and Sundays alone, there’s little reason to concern ourselves with ambassadorship. Unless we wear a cross around our necks, or a white collar around our throats, no one might ever know of our discipleship.
But then Paul has the nerve to remind us that some people will never see God except through us and the ways in which we exist in the world.
I have the benefit of representing the church not only because I am the pastor of one, but also because I walk around with my clergy collar. And when I dress that way I am forced to act like a Christian whether I want to or not. It is a constant and ever-ringing reminder that I am called to act, think, live, speak, and behave like a Christian.
And, though it pains me to admit, sometimes I need to wear the collar in order to live out my faith.
Without it hanging around my neck it is all too easy to fade in among the crowd and pretend like I’m not an ambassador for anything but myself.
So when I sat in the post-apocalyptic department store and the line developed in front of me, I listened to each person rattle off their sins. I watched their eyes while they offered their pleas for pardon and assurance. I wanted to be like everyone else minding my own business. I wanted to flip through my phone for the required ten minutes of observation and then leave. But instead, I handed over the goods to each of my fellow Christians: “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”
Does that make me a better Christian than other Christians? Definitely not. “Reluctant” doesn’t do justice to the way I felt that day. And sadly, I know that, in large part, the only reason it happened and the only reason I responded was because of my outfit.
Which makes me wonder: What would it be like if all Christians in all places wore little white tabs around our necks? I mean, scripture does talk about “the priesthood of all believers.” Imagine how different the world would be if each and every Christian walked around knowing that everyone else had certain expectations about who we are and what we do.
It might just be the difference that makes all the difference.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Wayne Dickert about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent [C] (Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5.16-21, Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32). Wayner is the pastor of Bryson City UMC in Bryson City, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including fresh expressions, summer internships, stones, dis-grace, mighty waters, praying by listening, new creations, ambassadors for Christ, prodigals, and Robert Farrar Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Don’t Be A Jerk
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Interior coffee shop: early morning.
Rain falls steadily against a window.
An assortment of customers in various states of caffeination are spread out among the tables and chairs.
A preacher sits alone in the corner. Computer and Bible are on the table, a subpar sermon is coming along splendidly.
He tries to focus on the matter at hand, but he can’t help but overhear a conversation from a nearby table.
“Can you believe he cheated on her?”
“Oh honey, that’s not the half of it. I heard he’s been living two lives between two houses with two different families.”
The preacher knows better than to eavesdrop, so he goes back to the flashing cursor on his computer. He’s able to jot a few ideas down, none of which will actually make it into the sermon. When, a few minutes later, he catches bits of different conversation at a different table.
“You know, the Ukrainians, they’re getting what they deserve. They elected that Zelensky and his liberal agenda. I think we would do well to have a leader like Putin here, someone tough who isn’t going to let anything get in his way.”
The preacher closes his computer and decides to leave before he overhears even more sinners talking about other sinners and their sin.
There are times when I like to think that we’ve come a long way since the time of our Lord, that we’ve progressed from some of our wandering recklessness.
And then I am reminded that, all things considered, not much has changed.
Do you think those Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will die like them.
What a grace-filled and hopeful word from the Word!
Robert Farrar Capon wrote that good preachers, and I would say good Christians, should behave like bad kids. We ought to be mischievous enough to sneak in among dozing congregations and steal all their bottles of religion pills, and spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the toilet.
Why? Because the church has drugged itself into believing that proper behavior is the ultimate pathway to God. We’re addicted to the certainty that, as bad as we might be, at least we’re not as bad as those other people over there.
There’s a reason reality TV is still such a favorite past time within and among the wider culture. We feel better about ourselves when we get to see other people behaving badly. It’s also why we’re quick to post photos of our perfect little families, even though they acted like animals while we were trying to get that perfect photo, so that everyone else will know, with certainty, that we have it all together.
But the sad truth is none of us know what we’re doing – some of us are better at pretending we know what we’re doing. But at the end of the day we’re all making it up along the way.
And yet, we can’t help ourselves from comparing ourselves to others in such a way that we are superior to their inferiority.
The crowds bring to Jesus their query; they want to know if people get punished for their sins – they want to know what it takes to be guilty.
And here’s the bottom line: if the God we worship punished us according to the sins we’ve already committed, the sins we’re currently committing, and even the sins we will commit in the future, then none of us would be around to worship in the first place.
Or, to put it another way: If every bad thing happens because God does it to punish us, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.
Over the centuries the church has been a place of guilt. Make em feel bad about their behavior, scare them about punishments in the hereafter, and they’ll show up in droves to hear about it all again next Sunday. And the same is true in our wider culture; we’re all keeping our little ledger books in our minds about who has done what to us.
But the strange new world of the Bible, the strange new world we talk about week after week, isn’t obsessed with guilt. No, if it’s obsessed with anything, it’s obsessed with forgiveness!
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!
The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!
What then, should we make of Jesus’ quip about repentance? “No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will die like them.”
Of course there should be repentance – a turning back, a return to the Lord. We’ve all wandered away from the Way. But repentance is supposed to be a joyful celebration, not a bargain chip we can cash in to get God to put up with us.
Repentance is a response to the goodness God has done, not a requirement to merit God’s goodness.
We can certainly feel guilty about our sins, and maybe we should. But feeling guilty about our sins doesn’t really do anything. In fact, the more we lob on guilt, the more likely we are to keep sinning because of our guilt.
The only thing we can ever really do about our sins, is admit them. It’s a great challenge to be able to see ourselves for who we really are, sinners in the hands of a loving God, and then take a courageous step in the direction of repentance. But if we ever muster up the gumption to do so, it will be because we live in the light of grace.
Grace works without requiring anything from us. No amount of self-help books, no number of piously repentant prayers, no perfect family, perfect job, perfect paycheck, perfect morality, perfect theology earns us anything.
Grace is not expensive. It’s not even cheap. It’s free.
And, according to the wondrous weirdness of the Lord, grace is like manure.
Or, perhaps we should call it holy fertilizer.
This is classic Jesus here. The crowds approach with their question and his answer to their question is a story, a parable.
A man has a vineyard and in the middle of the vineyard he planted a fig tree. But for three years it produced not a single fig. So one day the vineyard owner says to the gardener, “I can’t take it anymore. This fig tree is wasting my good soil. Cut it down.”
But the gardener looks at his employer and says, “Lord, let it be. Why not give it another year? I’ll spread some manure on it this afternoon and maybe next year it will have some fruit.”
Short and sweet as far as parables are concerned and yet, even in its simplicity there are a bunch of weird and notable details.
For instance, why does the vineyard owner plant a fig trees among a bunch of grapes? Do you think he was trying to develop a new, and perhaps bizarre, variety of wine? Or maybe he was going to start the first Fig Newton distribution service in Jerusalem?
Strange. But perhaps nothing is stranger than the gardener. This gardener speaks in defense of a speechless fig tree.
And what does the gardener says, “Lord, let it alone for a year. Let me give it some manure.”
At least, that’s what it sort of says in our pew bibles.
But in Greek, the gardener says, “KYRIE, APHES AUTEN.”
Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”
Lord, forgive it!
These might be some of the most striking for from the strange new world of the Bible both because they proclaim the forgiveness of the Lord for not reason at all, and because they help us to see how little we can.
There’s a reason that, when we nail Jesus to the cross, he declares, “Lord, forgive them for they do not know what we are doing.”
Lent is the strange and blessed time to admit, we have no idea what we’re doing. That we are in need of all the grace and manure we can get.
The cross with this we adorn the sanctuary, in all of its ugliness, is a sign and testament to Jesus becoming sin for us – how Jesus goes outside the boundaries of respectability for us, how he is damned to the dump because of us, and how he ultimately becomes the manure of grace for us.
It’s wild that Jesus has the gall to tell this story at all, and that the divine gardener offers to spread some holy fertilizer on the fig tree, on us.
Only in the foolishness of God could something so nasty, so dirty, so grossly inappropriate, becomes the means by which we become precisely who we are meant to be.
God’s grace gets dumped onto the fruitless fig trees of our lives and get co-mingled in the soil of our souls. It is messy and even bizarre, but without it we are nothing.
Jesus doesn’t give a flip whether we’ve got a fig on the tree or not. He only cares about forgiveness, a forgiveness we so desperately need because we have no idea what we’re doing.
For, if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve solved all the world problems by now. But we haven’t.
We are fruitless fig trees standing alone in the middle of God’s vineyard.
We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing.
And yet (!) Jesus looks at our barren limbs, all of our fruitless works, our sin sick souls, and he says the three words we deserve not at all: “Lord, forgive them.”
On Friday afternoon, the aforementioned Vladimir Putin addressed the people of Russia during a rally that was celebrating the 8th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. While Russian forces attacked Kyiv and blockaded civilians in other parts of Ukraine, Putin assured his people that Russia was forced into this war into to get the Ukrainian people out of their misery.
And then he said, “And this is where the words from the scriptures come to mind, ‘There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends.’”
That a world leader used Jesus’ words to justify violence and bloodshed is not unusual. It’s been done again and again throughout the centuries. Even here in the US, it is a familiar refrain whenever violence is on the table. Presidents Trump, Obama, Bush, and Clinton each used the quote at one point or another during their years in office.
But Jesus spoke those words before mounting the hard wood of the cross, not before going to war. Jesus laid down his life for his so-called friends who betrayed him, denied him, and abandoned him.
Jesus laid down his life for us.
And even with a crown of thorns adorning his head, and the cross over his shoulder, he still says, “Lord, forgive them.” Amen.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do preacher, but I don’t come to church to hear about what’s going on in the world. I come to church to hear about God.”
I received that comment after worship one Sunday many years ago and I will never forget it. I can’t remember what exactly I preached about that day, nor do I remember what hymns we were singing, but I remember that comment.
It’s a notable one. On one hand, the admission that the church exists to proclaim who God is and who we are in relation to God is remarkable and downright faithful. But on the other hand, the dismissal of the world in the church is a denial of the very reality of reality.
Preaching is never done in a vacuum. A time and a place are always present in a preacher’s work, but that does not mean that the preacher notices or recognizes where they are. Even preachers who try to do the work of preaching without acknowledging their time or place cannot help but reflect time and place in their work. We preachers are reflections of the world around us whether we like it or not.
The theologian Karl Barth is known for noting that preachers should work with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. That surely sounds like good advice: what we experience helps us to understand the scriptures and the scriptures help us to understand our experiences. The only problem is the fact that the newspaper is just as likely to mislead us regarding our time and place. And that’s not even mentioning the question of which newspaper we should be reading. We, indeed, live in a strange new world, made clear to us by various headlines, but when it comes to the life of faith, the strange new world of the Bible is our world.
An atrocity has taken place in the holy city, it’s the front page headline of the Jerusalem Times – Pilate Cuts Down Galileans In The Temple. We don’t know why they were killed, or even how they were killed, only that in their executions their blood was mixed with the sacrifices they brought to the Temple.
You can imagine the commotion this caused among the faithful.
So much so that some in the crowd approached Jesus and demanded to know why such a thing took place among God’s chosen people: What had they done to deserve such an awful fate?
“Nothing,” Jesus says, “They were not greater sinners than any other Galileans.”
And then the Lord pulls out another headline, another catastrophe on the hearts and minds of the people. A tower had fallen in Jerusalem, in the neighborhood of Siloam, just south of the Temple. 18 people died in the incident. And Jesus says, “They were not greater sinners than others either.”
The rain falls on the good and the bad alike, as do famines and other such things, Jesus says in another part of the Gospel. Which can sound like unmitigated bad news. And yet, it is strangely Good News. It is Good News because God is not keeping some great ledger book in the sky and then raining down blessings or curses accordingly. God is not a warden watching over the prisoners to see how well, or how poorly, we behave.
If God punished us according to the choices we make, not one of us would be left around to make any choices at all.
Instead, God arrives in the world in a totally fragile and vulnerable way so that even if a tower falls on our heads, or if our lives are taken by a dictatorial political emissary, or if we die peacefully in our sleep, that it will not be the end for us.
What we believe shapes how we behave. The cross and empty tomb give us the freedom, here and now, to live bold and faithful lives for the Lord and for others because the most important thing in the history of the world has already taken place. No headlines, bad or good, can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.
So, sure, take the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, but never forget that the former is far more determinative than the latter.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Wayne Dickert about the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent [C] (Isaiah 55.1-9, Psalm 63.1-8, 1 Corinthians 10.1-13, Luke 13.1-9). Wayner is the pastor of Bryson City UMC in Bryson City, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the Nantahala River, joy, well-digging, recreation for re-creation, praise, church meetings, the ministry of restoration, idolatry, divine challenges, and holy fertilizer. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The River of Life
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Here we are, in worship, on the second Sunday of Lent, the season in which we are called to lament and repent. In the scriptures we continue to confront the condition of our condition and the tones of abject disappointment from the Lord as the cross grows clearer on the horizon.
Jesus, it seems, has grown frustrated with God’s people refusing to hear and heed the summons to return home.
Jesus, it seems, doesn’t have much time to spare for the ruler of the people because he has better things to do.
Jesus, it seems, sees few alternatives left other than the one we adorn our sanctuary with.
As Jesus’ ministry progresses, his lamentations increase just as the obstacles standing in his way increase.
For some reason the political and religious establishments are threatened by the poor and wandering rabbi with his messages of the Kingdom of God. They are threatened because talk of the meek inheriting the earth calls into question all of the power and prestige they have acquired.
Which makes the beginning of this scripture all the more strange. It is rather peculiar that the protective warning comes from the Pharisees who, up to this point in the Gospel, have been anything but concerned for Jesus’ wellbeing.
“Get out of here Jesus! Herod wants to kill you!”
And Jesus brushes the threat aside, “You tell that dirty rotten scoundrel that I’ve got work to do and places to be.”
During Lent the strange new world of the Bible keeps pointing to the cross. Just as the city of Jerusalem is on Jesus’ radar, so too it is for us. Jerusalem is the end.
And Jesus loves Jerusalem.
But it is a strange love.
Jesus describes his own love for the city as a mother hen who endeavors to wrap her wings around her helpless chicks.
And yet, Jerusalem has responded to God’s love and mercy with rebellion, with selfish ambition, with violence.
Jesus loves Jerusalem, but in the end his love for her will be the death of him.
And though it pains us to admit, the same is true for us – Jesus’ love for us, in the midst of our sin-sick souls, it such that it leads to his end.
There are some texts in the holy scriptures that seem to be nothing but trouble. Jesus, here, complains about the wandering hearts of Jerusalem, and how they fail to see the truth right in front of their faces. “See your house is left to you,” sounds like a threat from the Lord.
And yet, biblically speaking, whenever trouble is present, grace isn’t far away.
There is a divine inversion between what is good and bad, in and out, elect and reject.
Cain kills Abel and though God sets Cain to wander the earth for the rest of his days, he is also marked so that no one will bring the same fate that he brought to his brother.
Jacob swindles his brother Esau out of the inheritance and is confronted with an angel of the Lord who knocks his hip out of joint for the rest of the days shortly before he reconciles with his brother.
The favor and blessing of the Lord moves from Saul to David, and yet David commands the people of Israel to weep upon the death of their former king.
Whenever we encounter someone or a group who appears to be rejected by God, there is also some sense of election.
Grace, what we talk about all the time, isn’t so amazing unless there’s a reason for it. Put another way – the law of God is given in order that grace might be sought, and the grace of God is given in order that the law might be fulfilled.
We need rejection and election.
We need law and gospel.
Because that’s what life is like.
Karl Barth put it this way: “There is no light which does not also know darkness, no joy which does not have within it sorrow; but the converse is also true; no fear, no rage, which does not have, far or near, peace at its side. No laughter without tears, no weeping without laughter!”
John Wesley once said that every law contains a hidden promise.
In theological speak we might call it a hermeneutic of inversion – an understanding of things being flipped upside down.
In our passage, Herod wants to kill Jesus. And yet, at the same time, Jesus wants to save Herod.
Jerusalem will bring about Jesus’ death. And yet, at the same time, Jesus’ death will bring about Jerusalem’s salvation.
There is always more to the story than the story itself.
As I said last week, try as we might to move through the motions of Lent, at some point or another we will raise the question that Christians have been asking since the beginning: Who in the world is this Jesus we worship?
I mean, why is Jesus so upset about Jerusalem? Why does he lament what they have done and what they will do? In another part of scripture Jesus will command the disciples to brush the dust off their feet when they encounter a town that does not receive them. Why then does Jesus desire to gather the wayward city under the loving care of a mother hen’s wings?
Luke doesn’t tell us that Jesus wept over Jerusalem. But Matthew does.
And it’s rather revealing.
I did a funeral once for a man whose daughter had not one kind thing to say about her Dad. He was awful to her, he did truly despicable things. It was a miracle she even showed up for the service. And after we put him in the ground, she couldn’t stop crying. And when I asked her why she was crying all she could say was, “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
What good is it to lament the bad?
The target is on Jesus’ back, Herod wants him dead. And Jesus brushes away the threat of the Pharisees like it’s nothing.
And then he laments. Not over his life shortly coming to an end. But over Jerusalem, the killer of prophets.
He laments, he grieves, he weeps.
Lent, for us, is the season that provides a chance to lament. Whereas the world always wants to drag us from one thing to the next, Lent compels us to pause. It is a time to sit and grieve and acknowledge that all is not right with the world.
Nor with us.
We’ve behaved badly.
We have done things we ought not to have done.
We have left far too many things undone.
And yet, when it comes to lament, we are far more inclined to lament what happened to and with other people and other places.
It’s not hard for us to imagine Jesus’ lamenting over Jerusalem, because we can just as easily picture him weeping over Russia.
O Russia, O Russia. Look at what you’re doing to the people of Ukraine! You’re dropping bombs on maternity wards, displacing children from their parents, you’re destroying your own souls! O how I have longed to hold you within my lovingly embrace! Look at what you’ve become!
And yet, the inconvenient truth of the Gospel is that for as much as Jesus weeps over the state of other places and other people, Jesus also laments over us.
I wonder, how Jesus would react to us today? What would happen if Jesus looked down upon us from the top of Mill Mountain. Would Jesus cry?
Would he lament?
This is what prophets do: they call into question the powers and principalities regarding all their power and prestige. Prophets point right smack dab at our hearts and our desires and our sins and our shortcomings, they hold up a mirror to who we are, and they beg us to see the truth.
No wonder prophets live such short lives – no one likes being told the truth.
Will Willimon tells a story about how, when he was younger and living in Greenville, South Carolina, the whole place was abuzz with the news that Billy Graham was coming to town. There was going to be a revival. All the churches made plans for the special occasion and even the most ardently unChristian folks were still hoping to hear a word from the evangelist.
And, at Will’s church, they had a meeting about whether or not their church would participate in the revival. The pastor stood before the gathered body and made an impassioned plea – Graham is setting souls on fire, he is winning people for Christ, what a remarkable opportunity for our town, for our church.
And then someone else chimed in, “I’m not so sure pastor. Billy Graham seems charismatic and all, but did you hear that he lets black folk and white folk sit in the same section during his revivals? I don’t think we should be involved with someone who supports integration.”
And that’s all it took. The board voted right then and there to protect the church from Billy Graham’s sinful racial mixing.
After the meeting, Will says that he walked through the church to leave, but forgot something in the social hall so as he turned around in a hallway he heard the sound of sobbing. He crept down the hall. And there was the pastor’s door left slightly ajar. Will peeked inside and he saw his pastor, kneeling on the floor, holding his head in his hands, weeping.
There is something deeply profound and deeply troubling about the cross. It is, of course, the sign and marker of our delivery from Sin and Death. But, in the cross, we discover our reckless rebellion from the one who came to live, die, and live again, for us.
Jesus laments the city of Jerusalem. He weeps with the knowledge of his desire to gather the people in love and their constant refusal. And he declares the house is left to them.
When the house is left to us we like to decide who is in and who is out. We like to formulate our own rules about who is first and who is last, who is right and who is wrong, who is rejected and who is elected.
And so long as the house is left to us, it will not look like the kingdom of God.
Instead it will be a place that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.
God in Christ desperately desires to gather us in, the lost and forsaken, like a hen gathers her brood under her wings. And we refuse.
So Jesus leaves the house to us.
But not forever.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “ you will not see me until the time comes when you say ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Those are the words sung by the crowds while waving their palm branches as Jesus enters Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.
Those are the same words that we, ourselves, will be singing in a few weeks.
You see, the Good News is that Jesus, in fact, does not abandon us to our own devices nor does Jesus leave us to our own houses. Instead, he arrives in the strangest of ways, banging on the doors of our own creation and says, through death and resurrection, this is my Father’s house.
Blessed is Jesus who comes in the name of the Lord because he is like us and so unlike us. He weeps and laments and loves precisely in our undeserving. He desires to gather us even when we push away. He still mounts the hard wood of the cross knowing full and well that, when push comes to shoves, our Hosannas will turn to Crucify in the blink of an eye. He still breaks forth from the tomb even though we put him there.
Jesus says to us, even today, look at who you are, and look at what you’re doing! Jesus still laments and cries, even for us.
Keeping up with the disruptive and demanding movements of a Holy and righteous God, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s enough to make you cry. Amen.